Charles Hayward

This Heat’s Charles Hayward

Story by Ken Micallef
Photo by Lewis Hayward

Coming out just as the era of prog rock gave way to the tidal wave of punk rock, England’s This Heat was largely drowned out by the overpowering sounds of the sonic revolution. But the group was as innovative as any of the leading creative lights that came before or after—and only three recordings were released during its existence. Today, however, the sounds on them, including the drumming, resonate more than ever.


On its three proper studio recordings, the Brixton-based art-rock band This Heat, featuring Charles Hayward on drums and keyboards, Gareth Williams on keyboard, guitar, and bass, and Charles Bullen on guitar and clarinet (all three also contribute vocals and tape manipulation), mixes strains of Krautrock, dub, reggae, rock, and musique concrète into a highly idiosyncratic sound. On 1979’s self-titled debut album, 1980’s Health and Efficiency EP, and 1981’s Deceit, This Heat references the rigid polymetric flavors of Gentle Giant, the tape-splice innovations of Pierre Schaeffer, and the DIY ethic and energy of punk rock, all combined into a noisy ball of art-school discipline and seer-like musical vision. Though at first largely unknown outside the U.K., the group has attained an ever-growing cult status among followers of fringe-dwelling modern music, as well as a number of well-regarded contemporary acts, including Caribou, Hot Chip, and LCD Soundsystem.

“I’ve been relearning the drum parts that this maniac twenty-eight-year-old came up with,” Hayward says with a chuckle while talking with Modern Drummer from his home in England. “He was nutty! I always tried to let the playing do the work. We generated music by improvising and then recording everything to tape. Then we’d isolate small sections and build around or from that.”

With little commercial success to show for its innovations, This Heat broke up in 1982, but Hayward continued to work, evolve, and perform. Today his solo recordings far outnumber those of his original band, but the impact of This Heat’s experiments on his current musical identity remains firm. Following the band’s dissolution, Hayward worked with many likeminded musicians, and recorded the notable records Survive the Gesture (1987), Skew-Whiff (1990), Switch on War (1991), and My Secret Alphabet (with multi-instrumentalist Nick Doyne-Ditmas, 1993). And being not completely unfamiliar with (relatively) more conventional music, Hayward worked with acts as diverse as the post-punk group the Raincoats and pop band Everything but the Girl. But he never strayed too far onto the path, regularly joining up with ensembles like the New York noise contortionists Massacre, featuring the underground heroes Bill Laswell and Fred Frith. Further Hayward projects include Shape Moreton, which explores soundscapes and improvisations; Clear Frame, with the British avant-gardists Lol Coxhill and Hugh Hopper; and the electronics/bass/drums trio Monkey Puzzle Trio.

Even considering all that has followed it, This Heat’s brief output remains prescient. The group’s debut, recently reissued on vinyl, along with Health and Efficiency and Deceit, follows a trajectory from punkish grooves propelled by “motorik” rhythms and brisk guitar to full-on noisescapes. This Heat forecasted industrial dance music while alluding to the abstract experiments of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Symphony for One Man Alone, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, and the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. Some This Heat selections sound nearly conventional, while others rely on distorted tape loops and guitars, humming motors, low-end tonal pads that recall synthesizers, and monotone vocals. Oscillators purr and repeat; drum rhythms loop; what sounds like a blanket of struck scrap metal rumbles alongside cut-time and 4/4 beats.

Even today it’s difficult to imagine exactly what This Heat’s compositional approach was. “Maybe a song I’d written would sit on top of something else we had,” Hayward explains. “We wrote songs and had ideas, and we sometimes had preexisting grooves. We weren’t heavily dividing things metrically; everything came from playing.”

Hayward took on various guises in This Heat, from rudimentary beatkeeper to arrhythmic sound stylist. “When playing like that, stiffness is not part of the deal,” Charles says. “You’re just playing, and however it feels is how it sounds. Our approach was related to ethnic or folk music, which became world music. We learned by repetition.”

This Heat’s members listened to everything from Balinese gamelan and pre-Christian Greek music to Stockhausen, Miles Davis, Syd Barrett, and even Kool and the Gang. Just as the Beatles and Pink Floyd experimented with found sounds and tape splicing, This Heat took experimental ideas further than anyone could have imagined. Though the musical conception was advanced, ’70s-era recording techniques proved limiting. “Often a drum take would be recorded with the other two instruments,” Hayward says. “We might be hoping for a good drum take, but if the other instruments didn’t sound as good, we would overdub those parts.”

As a young drummer Hayward had surprisingly standard, if wide-ranging, heroes. “I liked Ed Thigpen with Ella Fitzgerald,” he says. “I saw them live, as well as Mike De Silva with Sammy Davis Jr., when I was a twelve-year-old. I also liked the Shadows’ Brian Bennett, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon. Also Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine, Christian Vander from Magma, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Ornette Coleman’s drummer Charles Moffett.” At the same time, Hayward might have been consumed by the production sound of a snare reverb heard on a pop 45.

This Heat explored sonic concoctions to enable its concepts, which was reflected in Hayward’s unusual hardware embellishments. “I’d use an empty chocolate tin and a toy snare drum made by a company called New Era, who made high school band instruments,” the drummer recalls. “I used those two pieces to my right like a pair of timbales. I made little tunes between the two drums. It became a way to add color to a ride cymbal part.”

After the demise of This Heat, Hayward formed Camberwell Now, an equally adventurous trio that released four recordings: The Ghost Trade (1986), Meridian (1983), Greenfingers (1987), and a compilation, All’s Well (1992). “The songwriting with Camberwell Now was taken from specific imagery, like water or plants or knowing or not knowing,” Hayward explains. “We had a tape switchboard of four cassette decks with two signals per machine. Each cassette deck went through something like a Morse code key. It could only play a selection of eight sounds at any one time. That might be loops of our voices slowed down with no breaths. Or bass guitar played with metal knives that would give you this haze of four notes in a chord. We would record to one of the tape decks and let that tune hang over the rhythm. When I played a particular cymbal crash it would signal a sound running from the tape. Things would often magically happen in sync. Or we’d make the tapes based on reducing a song to a keyboard part with eight notes. It wasn’t improvisation based, but rather working from songs.”

Hayward’s explorations continue today. Recent recordings include the psychedelic improvisations of 2010’s GOL/Charles Hayward, 2004’s Gulf War–inspired Switch on War, and 2011’s One Big Atom, which jumps between songs, collage, found sounds, and noise. When reflecting on his initial solo recordings, Hayward is inscrutable. “Survive the Gesture was a series of songs about not finding myself in the music,” he laughs. “The drums were one part of the music. My playing has gotten better because I’m not obliged to focus on the drums, but rather the music. My Secret Alphabet slowly moves away from songs and becomes more fields of sound.”

One Big Atom was described by the independent music magazine Forced Exposure as “another departure for Hayward, taking songwriting further into the personal and political, shifting focus towards a ‘dread bass’ sensibility.” “One Big Atom is the first album I’ve engineered myself,” Hayward says. “I’m happy with the eclectic nature of the sound. I used a lot of editing as part of the process. I’m often editing after the attack of the sound. Not Pro Tools, but I won’t tell you how I engineered it. The music is made up of edits. There’s some tape editing—I edited digitally but without looking at a screen. And no computer was used except for mastering.”

Hayward’s 2012 release, Trademark Ground, explores, among other things, the sonic variety inherent in percussion, piano, and vocals—tranquil music with undertones of animus. “I’ve performed it live,” Hayward says. “It brings people into the noise thing. Grown men show up with tears in their eyes. It’s piano songs with brief drum interludes.”

Living simply with his family in a small apartment, with no car or television, Hayward is free to follow his muse, wherever it may lead. “I’m into odd meters within improvisation at the moment,” he says. “Building up structures that have odd meters within them while I’m improvising. Once I’ve recognized what the structure is, I repeat it. Or—and it’s quite simple—I might play 5/4 and bring it down to 4/4 within an improvisation. You play a rhythm and then remove the last beat in the measure. Initially people think they’re listening to 5/4, then it becomes 4/4. I like the idea of shortening and lengthening the measure, and creating cycles within that. I work on those within improvisations and other situations.

“I’m trying to find a way of thinking compositionally while playing or improvising,” Hayward adds, “such as playing eight bars of seven and a bar of eight—that’s one off the top of my head.” Indeed, working off the top of one’s head might not be every drummer’s preferred method, but if Hayward has proven one thing, it’s that a career spent gleefully following the muse wherever it may lead can be long and fruitful.

Tools of the Trade

“My set consists of gifts and chance encounters,” Hayward explains, “so I have a very intense relationship with it. In many ways it is a map of my life and has chosen me rather than the other way round. It’s the kit I’ve used since Quiet Sun [guitarist Phil Manzanera’s pre–Roxy Music band, which also predates This Heat], and some of it dates back to my very first drumkit.”

Hayward’s all-Ludwig kit consists of a Supraphonic snare drum, two rack toms, a floor tom, and a bass drum, augmented by a vintage Leedy Broadway snare (no bottom head, tuned low), a vintage New Era school snare, and a New Era tambourine. Other percussive oddities include woodblocks, cowbells, trays, hubcaps, and cracked cymbals placed on top of the drums. Products from Sabian, Paiste, and Zildjian make up Hayward’s cymbal selection, joined by a Han Chi Chinese cymbal and a steel saucepan lid. Vic Firth sticks, Flix Jazz brushes, and Evans and Remo drumheads round out the arsenal, which is completed by a pair of homemade mallets.